Brain Inflammation: An Overlooked Component of Mental Health

When most people think about mental health problems it’s not unusual to associate them with some sort of personal failing. If a person would just think differently, or try harder then they wouldn’t be depressed. It’s commonly overlooked that mental health conditions often have roots in physical health issues, including inflammation.

Toxicants and Inflammation

There’s evidence that toxicants can cause or contribute to mental health issues, likely through inflammation. Do you remember the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland? Do you know why hatters went mad? Historically they used mercury to make felt and got massive exposure to the metal which is well known to cause neurological damage and mental health problems (Waldron 1983).

Lead is also known to contribute negatively to mental health, increasing antisocial behaviors, psychopathology and thought disorder symptoms while lowering IQ (Sancar 2019). Both of these metals target the nervous system and cause inflammation and damage (Marshall 2019). 

There’s even evidence starting to build that exposure to certain plastics may cause problems with mental health. Children with higher exposure to bisphenol A had worse mental health outcomes including higher levels of depression, anxiety and ADHD (Ejaredar 2017). While bisphenol A has other hormone disrupting effects, it also appears to increase inflammation in the brain (Khan 2019).

Chronic Infections and Inflammation

There’s also evidence that a number of chronic infections may cause or contribute to mental health issues. While the research has some discrepancies, herpes simplex viruses type 1 and 2, cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr and Borna virus among others have been associated with depression and other mental health problems (Gale 2018, Wang 2014). Chronic infections can activate parts of the immune system, potentially increasing inflammation (Nasef 2017). 

Inflammation and Mental Health

At its core, inflammation appears to be an underlying component of mental health conditions overall. Every common mental health condition I can think of has research showing a relationship with inflammation, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, depression, bipolar and generalized anxiety disorder (Leffa 2018, Muller 2018, Kiecolt-Glasser 2015, Rosenblat 2016, Felger 2018). 

Treating the inflammatory component of mental health may provide significant benefits. Many natural agents that provide mental health benefits have anti-inflammatory effects as well. Examples include curcumin, ashwagandha, acetyl-carnitine and St. John’s wort among others (Fusar-Poli 2019, Gannon 2019, Veronese 2018, Ng 2017)  

Inflammation is a common problem among most chronic health conditions. While I generally screen patients for inflammation when treating mental health, it’s fascinating to consider how much we could improve our approach to mental health in general by addressing the underlying inflammatory components. 

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